Pentecost 1, Year C
I recently listened to a podcast that examined religion from the perspective of a social psychologist. This psychologist has examined religions over the centuries and millennia from a Darwinian perspective—trying to figure out why some religions flourish at specific times and then diminish in importance or disappear altogether. One of his theories is that religions that emphasize a God who judges and punishes are more likely to succeed because fear is a powerful motivator. If you are taught that if you don’t go to church, you will go to hell, then you might very well go to church. However, religions or denominations like our own that emphasize a loving and compassionate God are less likely to survive. If you look at the history of the Christian Church, it was a much more powerful church when we were using fear. It was not necessarily healthy or good, but definitely effective.
We all know that fear is a powerful motivator. We see it in our political atmosphere all over the place. And this use of fear to control people is not a new method. In Jesus’ time, one of the ways the Romans controlled the Jews was through fear and violence. They often used violence or threats of violence to quell insurrection. This is one of the reasons why crucifixions were public spectacles. The Romans knew how powerful fear was. There were some Jews who felt that the best way to respond to violence, was with more violence. And one can hardly blame them. It’s a natural reaction.
Yet Jesus and his disciples refused to respond with violence. Jesus wielded his power in a much different way. He did so with love and hope. This idea of hope was not new to the Jewish people. They had been hoping and praying for a messiah for centuries. Jesus was able to embody that hope for many Jews—and that was why he became a danger to the Romans. So the Romans killed Jesus….at least they thought they did. As we know, Jesus conquered death.
While Jesus’s resurrection was real and profound, it was witnessed by a limited amount of people. Those who witnessed it tried to spread the news, spread the hope, but it was difficult news to digest. It caused more divisions in the Jewish community. Consequently some Jews felt that they had to respond with fear and violence against this break away group—the Christians. Paul was one of the worst oppressors of the new Christians. He had not known Jesus when he lived and certainly had no reason to believe that this rabble rouser was the messiah and had been resurrected. Because of this, Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus, and when I say persecuted, he killed them. That was how he displayed his power and wielded control.
Paul had little reason to hope in this dead messiah, until that fateful day on the road to Damascus when a bright light from heaven struck him blind and he heard Jesus speak to him. From that moment, Paul went from persecuting Christians, to being one of the greatest evangelists of all time. From that flash of light and hope, Paul’s life got a lot more dangerous, a lot more uncontrollable.
Several years went by before he wrote the letter to the Romans which we heard today. During those years Paul converted thousands, and planted communities of Christians over hundreds of miles. He was also beaten and imprisoned for the message of hope that he carried. While he accomplished a great deal, he was sometimes discouraged by the fickleness of the new Christians. He would plant a church of passionate and zealous Christians only to later hear how they had been manipulated by false messiahs and wooed by messages of easy answers and immediate gratification. What is the point of hope if you can get everything you need in an instant? That is one of the things that the false messiahs provided, immediate gratification. That is one thing our culture has gotten very good at providing.
In these five verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul tells the story of hope, the birth of hope. “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us.” It is essentially a recipe for hope. Yet unlike most of those tantalizing recipes we see in magazines with ingredients like grape seed oil and shallots, this is a recipe with very basic ingredients, ingredients that most of us already have, or ingredients that are presently growing inside us.
That is the good news. The challenging news is that some of the ingredients that grow inside us… grow despite our best efforts to avoid them. No one wants suffering, but it is inevitable. For some, it comes in the form of a natural disaster like tornadoes or flooding. For some it comes from unnecessary and preventable shootings in our office buildings, schools and streets. For some, in the form of health problems; physical or emotional. For many it comes in the form of loss; loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a dream. Whoever you are, suffering at some point in your life is inevitable.
Yet my point is not how or why we suffer, but what we do with the suffering. Often suffering leads to despair, an uncontrolled and unrelenting despair. But Paul, who was no stranger to extreme and extended suffering, believed that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint us. In my suffering, there were moments when I felt like despair was the only possible outcome. What always protected me from abject despair was God’s presence, even when God’s presence felt murky and undefined, I could still feel it.
It is times like that, when we have to choose between despair and hope. It is times like that when hope feels incredibly dangerous. It is not the canned hope that so many things in our culture provide. It is not the isolated hope that self-help books give us. It is wild hope, dangerous hope, hope that cannot be controlled because it is not ours to control. It is God’s.
Often times we try to control hope with phrases like “cautiously optimistic.” I have used that phrase. It’s a smart way to be. It’s a safe way to live. I am just not sure it’s Christian. I often think that I can protect myself from disappointment if I do not let myself hope. But that is kind of missing the point. When Paul spoke of hope, it wasn’t the verb….it was the noun. We don’t hope for something. We strive to live a life that will lead us to hope itself…because the embodiment of the hope is Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Hope is not the means to an end, it is the means to glory.
There are some churches, some religions that still use fear as a motivator. Yet we—Christians—have something so much more powerful than fear. We have hope. Ironically hope is a much braver tool than fear and in some ways, it’s a more dangerous and scary tool to wield because it is completely beyond our control and it requires things like suffering and sacrifice. However, Jesus promised us in our Gospel text that we would never be alone in this journey toward hope. The Holy Spirit is with us. Jesus calls us to live with the power of Holy Spirit– to a wild and untamed hope that leaves us breathless and sometimes terrified. The best way to face that fear, is to do it together, as a community of faith. Let us together throw cautious optimism out the window. Let us be dangerous–dangerously hopeful.
The podcast I referred to in the beginning is: https://www.npr.org/2018/07/16/628792048/creating-god